Beating the Heat in the 1930s

The mid 1930s saw some of the hottest summer temperatures ever recorded in Nebraska. When Ruth Godfrey Donovan and her family moved to Lincoln in 1934, the Depression and a severe drought were well underway. Donovan, who lived in a small apartment near downtown Lincoln, recalled: “Sleeping was difficult during that heatridden time. Sometimes it would be so hot inside the building we dragged the cushions from the living room couch out on the front porch and slept on them in the cooler outside air.”

Other Lincolnites indulged in outdoor sleeping in public spaces to keep cool. Donovan remembered “watching people arrive early in each evening to sleep on the green expanse of the State Capitol lawn! About 4 or 4:30 every afternoon they started to come. They would arrive in all sorts of automobiles and also on foot. The places where they lived were just too hot for sleep. So they brought all sorts of bedrolls, blankets and even mattresses and camped out nightly on the Capitol lawn.”

The earliest air conditioning devices had large-scale applications in factories, theaters, and other large buildings. Small-scale designs for residential cooling came later. Donovan recalled: “At that time air conditioning was still a householder’s dream. The movie theaters had the first air conditioning and after an excessively hot day, an evening spent in an air conditioned movie was a great relief. We went often. . . .

“The iceman was still making his daily rounds at that time. I prepared for his coming by placing a large washtub in the center of the living room floor. Then I watched for him. When I saw his small truck in front I rushed out and asked for a fifty pound piece of the delightfully cold product. He would bring it into the apartment and place it in the tub. Then I turned a strategically placed electric fan to blow on the block of ice. For several hours I gloated over the cooling breezes!

“The first home air conditioner I ever saw was made by the neighbors who lived in the apartment at the front of that house. The lady called me in one very hot day. ‘I have something to show you,’ she said. ‘It really works on this terrible heat.’ As I entered the front door of her apartment I believed her. Her apartment was quite a bit cooler than mine-not realy [sic] cool but cool in comparison. The wonder of the year was setting by an east window of her living room. The main part of the air cooler was nothing more than an old automobile radiator. The window behind it was open slightly, just enough to allow a garden hose to be passed in to the coils of the radiator and another piece of hose to go from the coils and out of the window. An electric fan was placed behind the radiator and blew a steady stream of air on the coils. The mixture of cold water going through and the air from the fan produced cool air for the room! It seemed miraculous.”

Kool-Aid, a favorite summer drink of Depression youngsters, was developed by Hastings inventor Edwin Perkins. 

Nebraska State Historical Society Collection.

(July 2009)

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